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GDC 2007: Into the Vortex Page One

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”This plant is dynamite," said Gabez nervously. Shall we ask what he means...?

Telltale games kindly invited me over to their offices during GDC week, so I went over on a bus and only managed to miscalculate my time of arrival by getting there two and a half hours early. I bumbled my way into the office complex, and came across some confusing closed doors. The whole thing was rather like an adventure game: get into Telltale; talk to some characters; use every item in your inventory with every object on the screen; pull up the map and go somewhere else.

Jake and Emily (my contacts) had just gone out to lunch, but there was a nice man called Aaron who shook my hand, smiled benevolently, and explained that they probably wouldn’t be back for an hour. So I said that I’d come back later, and I went around for a walk, which is nearly impossible in that place, as the designer blatantly hated pedestrians. I did find an abandoned railway line nearby, though.

Mojo live report! - except it's not live, and it's not a report.

Then I came back, and I remember about three people went looking for Jake and Emily for me, whilst I sat down in a comfy sofa at the entrance of the Office, thinking about the state of my life. They have a lot of framed Graham Annable artwork on the walls, a signed painting of Bone which was made for the re-release of the comics (“Jeff Smith signed it in the dark part of the picture,” Emily later told me), and the original painting for the Sam & Max magazine cover, where Sam is throwing Max. There was also a TV, a Wii, and some printed pictures of Max’s skull with some arrows pointing around – I never did work out what that was about, and I forgot to ask.

By-and-by, someone said that Emily was around, and I got led over to her desk, where we exchanged smiles and “how do you do”s, then into another office where Jake and Doug lived. Jake, of course, is Mr Mojo himself, and is therefore the boss of my life. I was half tempted to ask for my pay-cheque, except I knew that he would give me shifty eyes and I would respond with weepy face, and then there would be a silence, and I would have to disconnect myself from the server in order to avoid further embarrassment. So I didn’t ask him for money (I’m joking of course – there is no money in Mojo) but instead shook his hand and grinned inanely. I think he said “WELCOME TO TELLTALE!” – and then: “This is Doug, by the way. You know, as in, Tobacco. As in… Idle Thumbs. As in… site we don’t update anymore. He’s like Remi, except he actually does stuff.”

”Ah yes, pleased to meet you Mr. Thumb” I responded, twirling my umbrella in the air. To be honest I don’t fully remember this part (it was, after all, over a week ago), so I’ll skip ahead a little to when Emily showed me around the office.

JOURNEY OF THE SORCERER

Baldur's Gate II: someone at Telltale is a fan.

Thumb Baldur's Gate II: someone at Telltale is a fan.

“Sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived,” she said.

“Oh, not at all.” I replied. “I’m sorry I was so early! It was the buses, the buses, you know.” This last bit I remember saying incredibly loudly, announcing my errors to the entire office. “I can never work out the buses!”

One of the first things I was shown was the big shelf o’ games, which had titles that staff members had brought in from home (I’m not entirely sure what the point of this was, but it did look impressive). There was the usual smattering of adventure games, including Escape from Monkey Island (which a few of the Telltale team worked on), and also Baldur’s Gate II, which caused me to scream: “Oh, I love that game! That’s brilliant!” at an annoyingly loud volume.

There was also a shelf o’ books, which “starts with the days of the early text adventure, and ends two years later,” as Jake explained. I also saw a book on Algebra, which reminds me of a funny story... apparently, Brendan brought in a games box from home, and inside was his old math homework. I planned to steal it and give it away in a Mojo competition, but unfortunately it had been mysteriously “lost” soon after its discovery.

I found out some interesting things about Jake. One: he looks exactly like his cartoon version in Behind Mojo. He once hit me with his cane and I started to bleed. Two: he once spent a night in a prison cell in Alcatraz (“when I was 14, for boy-scouts,” he claimed). Three: he has too many computers at his desk. Three, to be precise. Two computers (“I am upgrading my Dell 4100 to Dell 4200”) and a Mac (“because I wanted to work on a Mac when I first got here”). He also has two monitors, which includes a magic button that switches between PC and Mac. Personally, I think it was all rather excessive. Doug also had two monitors, but, man, he needed it – Doug does all the serious looking server stuff, and used a whole monitor just to show flashing text.

Thumb CSI episodes: expect more of these in the future.

Most of the Telltale workers had very large monitors. Some of them had 3D models on them, with people tapping away at keys, moving polygons around. This is how animation works. Emily also pointed out where the Sam & Max people sit, and where the CSI team sit. “They don’t talk, usually, just glower at each occasionally.” There were a lot of printed pictures on the wall from the TV series and the game, so that the designers could compare the two together and be as authentic as possible. For the next CSI game, they’re going to make it even more like the TV show, which will be exciting.

NOW WASH YOUR HANDS

Next, Emily showed me a sneak peak at episode five. We went into the Telltale meeting room, which has one of those big screens with projectors, like at the cinema. “We got to show people this game last night, at the party,” she explained. “Ron Gilbert was there, and he said that it was the funniest game that he’d played in the last five years.” He might as well have said: that’s the second funniest game I’ve ever played.

The episode is called Reality 2.0, and it’s something about computers going crazy, and nerds, and Brosco has become a half-elf, I believe. “Some of the feedback we got from the previous episodes, was that things weren’t changing enough,” said Emily. “This was intentional. Dave thought it would be funny if the calendar never got updated – but actually it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny at all. So this time we changed stuff.”

Sam and Max: episode five.

Thumb Sam and Max: episode five.

The game was lacking voices for some lines, a few animations, and at one point it crashed, but generally it looked pretty finished. “We run a pretty tight ship ‘round these here parts,” said Emily. “Ya, you betcha.”

I asked whether lines could be recorded at short notice, if the script suddenly changed, or a new joke was added. “Yeah, that’s possible, but it generally doesn’t happen because of the tight schedule.” And where does the recording take place? “Oh, that’s all up in Fairfax, along with the music. We have an agency that does all the casting, so we send them a little description of the character, and then they send us back some voice clips, and we decide which actor to go for.”

I then asked Emily about Bone, and she said that no, it wasn’t getting made at the moment, but everyone at Telltale would really love to do it. “We were talking about that at lunch, actually. We wish we were working on Bone.” She looked really glum as she said this, so I said: “oh, never mind, it’s best not to spread yourself too thin anyway.” I think that there are actually darker reasons for Bone Episode Three not being made, something about licensing, but I couldn’t find anything else about that, as it’s one of those touchy legal subjects. Speaking of which, I made an ill-calculated joke about “market place realities” that got an awkward silence. Whoops!

Next page: the awards ceremony, and LucasArts gets grilled.

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